As yet, however, this momentum has not been matched within the formal youth justice system. Despite this, policymakers in England and Wales need not look far for evidence that restorative justice can work, as, since 2003, Northern Ireland’s youth justice system has placed restorative ‘youth conferencing’ at its heart.
Introduced as part of an overhaul of the youth justice system, the youth conference order is available both pre-court, as a diversionary order where the young person admits the offence at charge, and post-conviction, as a court-ordered conference. Conferences are organised and facilitated by trained specialists, and involve offenders giving an account of the offence, before victims and others involved, including community representatives, are offered the opportunity to ask questions and explain the impact on them.
Victim participation rates, a key measure of truly restorative encounters, are high at two-thirds of all conferences, and almost 90 per cent of victims express satisfaction with the outcome. The number of children being sentenced to custody has declined, with the youth conference order accounting for almost a quarter of all sentences.
And crucially, reoffending rates are lower than for other community sentences, and significantly lower than custody, with just under 38 per cent of young people reoffending within one year, compared to 71 per cent of those released from prison. Contrary to some of its critics, restorative justice isn’t a soft option, requiring offenders to come face to face with their victims, and hear, often for the first time, exactly how their actions have caused harm.
In addition, it has real potential to act as a robust alternative to custody, with violence against the person offences accounting for a quarter of all conference referrals in Northern Ireland. Perhaps most importantly, it gives both offenders and victims the opportunity to input into an action plan for making amends which the offender must stick to. Plans can include written apologies, specified activities, unpaid work, a curfew or compensation.
How could the lessons of Northern Ireland be replicated more widely? One way advocated in the nef report would be to devolve budgets for prison places to local authorities. At the moment, prison places are paid for by central government.
Transferring the costs to local governments – together with more power over how they can arrange youth justice services locally – would remove the perverse incentive to give up on young people in trouble and allow them to end up in custody. The councils would be allowed to keep some of the savings created from reducing custody, which could be reinvested in the reduction of crime.
The report finds that local authorities could reduce the use of imprisonment by 13 per cent without need for controversial legislative change or a large increase in public spending. The policies considered include better co-operation between local agencies and courts, and using interventions of restorative justice that allow offenders to repair the damage they have caused in the community.
These changes could result in more than £60 million of savings in England, and more than £2 million for some local authority areas. With the impending general election, and the attendant, inevitable focus on youth crime, it must only be a matter of time before policymakers wake up to restorative justice’s potential to radically reduce the escalating social and economic costs of child imprisonment.